How the political operative—not the politician—became the hero of modern American campaigns.
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.
If Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, the man behind the Etch A Sketch gaffe, is having a dark night of the soul, he ought to call Steve Schmidt. Schmidt was John McCain’s senior strategist—aka the man who OK’d Sarah Palin and presided over a seven-point shellacking. Yet in the HBO movie Game Change, Schmidt came off looking … pretty good. Shambling and put-upon, sure, but also a loyal soldier for a lost cause.
Or Fehrnstrom might call James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. The release of the 1993 documentary The War Room on a Criterion Collection Blu Ray reminds you of Bill Clinton’s masterminds at their scheming best. They’re planting negative stories (Poppy Bush printed campaign signs in Brazil!), swatting down sex rumors, crowing, “We changed the way campaigns are run.”
In the wake of a gaffe, political operatives are the media’s buffoons. They seem as sad their inevitable nicknames: Turd Blossom, Sergeant Schmidt, Schlumpy. But when the history of the campaign is laid down, this comic portrait gets erased like an Etch A Sketch. In the hands of a political reporter or filmmaker, the political operative becomes something else entirely. He becomes a romantic—sometimes tragic—hero.
A political operative’s story is told in three acts. Act 1: The operative meets the candidate. “He had the gait of a man used to being obeyed, admired, courted, and loved,” George Stephanopoulos wrote of his first encounter with Bill Clinton. A pact is made, one that flatters both candidate and op. “It was how I felt around him: uniquely known and needed, as if my contribution might make all the difference,” Stephanopoulos wrote.
Act 1 is a time of innocence, before the inevitable mistress/reverend/campaign finance scandal. Vacations—even a second child, in the case of Obama op David Plouffe—are set aside on account of the campaign. “Of course, political consultants are motivated by money and power and sex and all that,” says Paul Begala, who worked for Clinton in 1992. “But more than most people, they have a need to believe in a cause larger than themselves.”
Belief turns out to be the operative’s undoing. For in Act 2 of his story—in the cornfields of Iowa or among the snowdrifts of Manchester—the scales fall from his eyes. He might be turned off by Bill Clinton’s rubbery soul, Al Gore’s elusive soul, George W. Bush’s lack of depth, John McCain’s monster ego. The operative asks—to steal a thought from McCain man Terry Nelson, in Game Change—Does [Clinton/Obama/McCain] really want to be president?
Act 3 depends on whether an op’s candidate wins or loses. If he wins, the operative always cries. James Carville breaks down at the end of The War Room. Axelrod and Robert Gibbs teared up during Obama’s 2008 convention valedictory in Denver. As the authors of Game Change write perceptively, “the magnitude of what they had accomplished sank in.”
If the candidate loses, there are two possibilities. The operative is cast as a loyalist—think of Clintonite Maggie Williams, who tightened up Hillary’s sputtering campaign. Or else the op is a reluctant mutineer—as when John Edwards’ team plotted to reveal his affair to save the party, or when McCain aide Nicolle Wallace, according to the Game Change movie, refused to vote.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.